My fascination with Turner’s paintings began in the late 1970s. I was in my late teens, and we had just moved to Delhi. Instead of buying me new clothes for an upcoming festival, my mother, very sensibly, took me to a bookshop. The first thing I saw as I walked in was a teetering pile of small paperback art books. They were part of a series published by Thames & Hudson on Western artists, inexpensive, but with fairly good reproductions. I walked out with three of the books, including one on JMW Turner.
Turner’s biography by James Hamilton draws extensively on his paintings as well as the notebooks he kept throughout his adult life. This biography is by no means a light read—it is fairly scholarly, with all the sources meticulously documented. But it’s worth reading for the vivid picture Hamilton paints of the artist and his milieu. It’s as close as we can get to the artist.
Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in 1775 to a barber, William Turner, and his wife, Mary. Hamilton starts the book with a description in the Annual Register of two hours of “spectacular solar effects” that were observed on 27 April 1775. Although Turner’s exact date of birth is unknown, he was christened in early May, so it was possible that the solar effects happened around the time he was born. To quote Hamilton: “Solar haloes are reasonably common, but this one appeared at the time of the birth of the greatest painter of sunlight the world has ever known.”
The artist’s father was his biggest admirer, and his clients became the boy’s first customers, buying his paintings and sketches displayed on the barbershop walls. The senior Turner took care of his son for the rest of his life, living with him and making sure the painter had everything he needed. His death was a big blow to his son.
Turner was a prodigy, who joined the Royal Academy at the age of 14. He started by trying to emulate his hero, the French painter Claude Lorraine, but I personally think he surpassed his idol. He was passionate about his work and would go to any lengths for it. There is an apocryphal story about Turner getting sailors to tie him to a mast in a storm so he could record it—Hamilton does not confirm the story, but I think it is fairly plausible.
Turner was a brilliant painter—an impressionist long before the Impressionist movement began. He had a way of capturing light that was radical for his time and was fascinated with the sea and the interplay of sun and water. He also travelled extensively, visiting Europe, crossing the Alps and walking everywhere he possibly could, usually alone, accompanied by his sketchbooks.
JMW Turner: The Fighting “Temeraire” tugged to her last berth to be broken up
An interesting and rather contradictory man, Turner could be a very good and steady friend, and yet had his mentally disturbed mother sent to an institution, never having anything to do with her after that. He could come across as “coarse and boorish” but painted the most exquisite pictures. He was an artist with a clear sense of business and money. He had close friends whom he visited regularly but was extremely private about his two mistresses, Sarah Danby and Sophia Booth, both widows. In his later years, he moved in with Mrs Booth, who ran a lodging house. People in the town knew him as Admiral “Puggy” Booth, and no one realized that he was really the famous painter.
But the keenest, most succinct description of Turner was by John Ruskin, the painter: “I found in him a somewhat eccentric, keen-mannered, matter-of-fact English-minded gentleman; good-natured evidently, bad-tempered evidently, hating humbug of all sorts, shrewd, perhaps a little selfish, highly intellectual, the powers of his mind not brought out with any delight in their manifestation, or intention of display, but flashing out occasionally in a word or look.”
The paintings this shrewd and eccentric man left behind are testament to his talent: vast landscapes where nature overwhelms groups of puny humans or simple, quiet scenes. What nearly all of them have in common is a constant, searing presence—light.